Left In the Dust: Nevada’s Drought

Over the summer, I was fortunate enough to travel across the entire state of Nevada. What impacted me most during this trip was witnessing the severity of the drought that has gripped Nevada.

The trip was meant to be six days of fishing and camping. My companions and I started the drive up the US-93 towards Ely then on to Wells and Elko. The road was a nice change from the Mojave Desert. The eastern side of Nevada is suffering less of a drought than the western side of it. We saw a series of small lakes, oases and marshes alongside small and large alfalfa farms. Here even the desert landscapes seemed lush, dotted with green and brown hues.

But the lush landscape ended as soon as we headed west on the I-80. Parallel to the I-80 we caught glimpses of what looked like a creek that would go dry on and off. It was actually the Humboldt River.

We spent a night at the Rye Patch Reservoir next to the I-80. It was already nightfall when we camped so we didn’t get to see the reservoir until the next morning. We arose shocked to see that on one side of the dam, the water looked like a stagnant pool maybe three feet deep. We could see catfish and carp sluggishly swimming about in the shallow waters with a look as if they were suffocating in the sun-beaten remaining pool of water. The sight made us lose our desire to fish.

Looking at the water, I remembered something a colleague in the environmental movement and member of the Reno band of Paiutes, Norm Delorm, had told me about a Paiute belief. He said to me, “Water is a living spirit, it moves, it flows, it shapes the land, it gives life to all of Mother Earth’s creatures. But being a living thing, you can kill it too. When water is stagnant, or over used, it becomes dead water. The spirit has left the water.”

On the other side of the reservoir, the water looked much better, but the shoreline was heavily marked where the waters once peaked. It was very reminiscent of Lake Mead.​

From Rye Patch we headed to Pyramid Lake. My companions and I fell in love with the crystal clear waters that were so cool, refreshing and inviting. As large and majestic as Pyramid Lake is, the drought has left deep scars. The boat launches no longer reached the water, the locals complained about beaches and sand bars that were new to them because of the growing shoreline, and just like the other bodies of water I saw a bathtub-like ring indicative of where the height to which the water once peaked.

The drought was more pronounced on the way back to Las Vegas along the US-95. The scariest sight was Walker Lake next to Hawthorne, or what was left of it anyway. The lake was more mud than water.


Walker Lake today. Image source: http://www.walkerlakecrusaders.com.

The rest of the drive back to Las Vegas I was left to contemplate. I thought about the aquifers in California that have gone dry. I thought about the the joint USGS and Scripps Institute study on how the Southwest used the equivalent of six and a half times the capacity of a full Lake Mead in groundwater in the last year. I thought about the fact that the USDA declared the entire state of California and 9 of the 17 counties in Nevada a “drought disaster zone.” I thought about the fact that Lake Mead is at its lowest level since it was created.

And then I thought, what do we as a society do about it? Unfortunately that was all I was left with… an unanswered question.